Touring the Harvard University Portrait Collection

February 10, 2014
Ethan Lasser, Margaret S. Winthrop Associate Curator of American Art, talks to Harvard Art Museums members about the works in the Portrait Collection displayed in the Faculty Room in University Hall. 

Last Friday, January 31, Harvard Art Museums members received a private tour of works from the Harvard University Portrait Collection on display in the Faculty Room in University Hall. This installment of the Harvard Treasures tours, a members-only series exploring art and architecture around the Harvard campus, was led by Miriam Stewart, Curator of the Collection in the Division of European and American Art, and special guest, Ethan Lasser, Margaret S. Winthrop Associate Curator of American Art, both of the Harvard Art Museums.

The talk began with an overview of the history of University Hall, giving members insight into this distinctive space before delving into the portraits on the walls. Despite the faces of Harvard history filling the room from floor to ceiling, the Faculty Room in University Hall didn’t feel very Harvard-like. The large portraits floated on sea-green walls lined with bright white neoclassical trim, with no wood paneling in sight. Also, architect Charles Bulfinch, famous for his work on the Massachusetts State House and the Capitol in Washington, DC, chose a granite exterior for the hall, which sets it apart from the red-bricked Harvard Yard.

As caretakers of the Portrait Collection, the Harvard Art Museums staff is well-versed in its works, making Stewart and Lasser excellent guides for this tour. Studying the portrait collection is a very different mode of thinking for curators, explained Lasser, where it is the sitter who holds higher significance than the artist. In University Hall, the great painter John Singer Sargent and sculptor Thomas Crawford take a back seat to the Harvard presidents they depicted–Abbot Lawrence Lowell (1909–33 term) and Josiah Quincy (1829–45 term), respectively. Rather than simply lecturing, Lasser and Stewart encouraged members to participate in the conversation. “Why are some portraits done in marble and others in paint?” asked Lasser, to which he received a number of thoughtful responses.

In this “sea of men,” Miriam Stewart made sure to recognize the women in the room, those pictured as well as those holding the brush. About 100 of the 1,200 works in the Harvard University Portrait Collection are of women, noted Stewart. Of particular note was a portrait of Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, not simply the wife of noted Harvard professor Louis Agassiz, but the co-founder and first president of Radcliffe College. Agassiz’s portrait was painted by her friend Sarah Wyman Whitman, who was known for her work in many art fields, such as interior design and stained glass design. The closeness of the relationship can be seen in the care taken to render Agassiz’s likeness.

Stewart and Lasser’s talk left members in awe of all the history and personalities that this room of portraits held. It also offered surprising revelations of what’s included in the Portrait Collection: most didn’t know, for instance, that the collection includes not just paintings but also drawings and sculpture. As it turns out, students, tourists, and passers-by interact with a work in the Portrait Collection every day and probably don’t even know it—the next time you visit Harvard Yard and rub the John Harvard statue for good luck, know that you’re helping to maintain the shine on a work from Harvard’s great Portrait Collection.

Check out our upcoming Harvard Treasures tour on February 28. Photographer David Taylor and exhibition curator Michelle Lamunière will tour the exhibition David Taylor: Working the Line, on view at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. To learn more about membership and to register for the tour, email or call 617-495-4544.